One of the most famous superhero tropes is the concept of the sidekick. Traditionally, superhero sidekicks are usually a teenage, less-skilled, and/or less-powerful apprentice to the main hero. The sidekick gives the hero someone to talk to, a companion in crime fighting, and (depending on the backstory) someone with a similar origin or background.
Still, superhero sidekicks seem to have gone the way of super-ventriloquism in modern superhero comics. That said, we still have kid or teenage superheroes—the Teen Titans are still popular, along with various younger versions of Spider-Man.
But what factors led to the traditional sidekick role’s demise?
Robin, the Boy Wonder (and original sidekick)
I should start this by summarizing the backstory to date of superhero comics’ most famous sidekick, the original Robin (Dick Grayson). Dick debuted in April 1940’s “Detective Comics” #38; a circus acrobat, mobster “Boss” Zucco killed his parents as part of an extortion scheme against the circus. Taken in by Bruce Wayne as a ward, Dick trained and became Batman’s sidekick, Robin. Together, the two heroes tracked down and captured the aforementioned mobster.
After this, Robin became a successful addition to Batman’s series (Batman himself was only created a year earlier). Until the late 1960s, Batman and Robin appeared as the “Dynamic Duo,” with Batman stories rarely depicting Batman in action without Robin. Robin did get his own series from 1947 to 1952 in the anthology title “Star-Spangled Comics.”
The classic “Dynamic Duo” status quo finally came to an end with December 1969’s “Batman” #217. In this story, Dick graduated from high school and headed off to college, leaving Bruce a solo hero once again. After this point, Robin would work occasionally with Batman, but became more associated with the Teen Titans (who first appeared five years earlier). Feeling he’d outgrown the role of Robin (and having closer ties to the Titans), Dick changed his name to “Nightwing” and became a solo hero in 1984’s “Tales of the Teen Titans” #44.
There’s been various replacement Robins since, but none of them are as joined at the hip as the pre-70s incarnations of the Dynamic Duo. These days, Robin, while grandfathered in as a sidekick, usually reflects current depictions of teen superheroes as solo adventurers.
What led to the end of traditional superhero sidekicks?
So why did the concept of the sidekick die out? I offer a few of my guesses why below. In general, the decline in sidekick popularity seemed to come during the latter half of the Silver Age and the rise of the Bronze Age. (That’s the 1960s and 1970s for non-comic fans reading this.)
Superheroes’ supporting casts expansion
One role of superhero sidekicks is to give the main hero someone to talk to (as a “Watson” to the heroes’ “Holmes”), as well as fight crime alongside. When Dick first appeared in 1940, Batman’s supporting cast only consisted of Commissioner Gordon and Julie Madison, Bruce Wayne’s first romantic interest. No, not even Alfred (who doesn’t appear until 1943).
However, as the decades wore on, Batman’s supporting cast expanded. Today, the “Batman Family” is quite vast. The Masked Manhunter doesn’t need the current Robin as a sounding board to the degree he did in 1940—Bruce now has Batgirl, Nightwing, Batwoman, Alfred, Lucius Fox, and tons of other characters… along with the Man of Steel himself.
The rise of superhero teams (and the Teen Titans)
Speaking of Superman, the Silver Age saw a rise in a few other concepts: superhero teams and crossovers.
While the 1940s saw the Justice Society and a few other teams, superheroes were more likely to hang out with their sidekicks/supporting cast than other heroes. However, 1960 saw the debut of the Justice League of America, featuring DC’s top heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.). As the decade went on, we also saw the rise of other teams, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Doom Patrol, and the Teen Titans. And of course, there’s the “World’s Finest” team-ups between Superman and Batman, which started in 1954.
The original Teen Titans debuted in 1964, with the initial team roster consisting of Robin and the other sidekicks introduced in the late 50s and early 60s: Aqualad, Kid Flash, and (joining a few issues in) Wonder Girl (Donna Troy). Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick since the 1940s) also eventually joined the Titans.
One thing all of this gave both adult superheroes and their sidekicks: peers their own age. Robin didn’t have to settle for tagging along with adults like Bruce and Clark, and could hang out with his fellow teenagers. Similarly, Bruce and Clark could associate with their fellow adult JLAers.
Spider-Man: Teen superheroes could be solo heroes (and their own characters)
Solo kid and teen heroes did exist before then—the 40s had the Marvel Family, plus various kid heroes. And one of the top-selling titles of the Silver Age was Superboy, Superman’s adventures as a youth. (Though even Superboy found himself teaming up with fellow teens in the Legion of Super-Heroes.)
Still, Spidey represented a big change in the concept of teen superheroes. Peter Parker was a teenager that didn’t name himself after any existing character, had no ties to any other heores, and didn’t name himself any permutation of “lad” or “boy” (a la Superboy). The idea that teen superheroes could be their own characters, not just juvenile versions of or secondary characters to adult heroes, eventually became the norm.
An emphasis on youth (and youth culture)
Finally, the 1960s and 1970s also saw a lot of real-life cultural changes. Among these changes was the rise of a “youth culture.” Teen culture and appealing to youth gained heavy prominence, and this extended to cartoons.
As I wrote in my posts about Scooby-Doo’s 50th anniversary and 1970s animation, cartoons started to prominently feature teenagers as the stars, not adult characters. Thus, it’s no surprise that all this filtered into superhero comics.
The “youth movement” also extended to the adult superheroes. Superman and Batman went from being vaguely-defined thirty- or forty-somethings to 29- or 30-year-olds, in the name of seeming “hipper.”
That said, superhero comics in the 70s and 80s also started to be written increasingly for older readers. These days, DC and Marvel comics (with very few exceptions) aren’t kid-friendly at all. Thus, a “character younger readers can identify with” definitely isn’t a priority.
Overall, traditional superhero sidekicks have mostly died out in comics after the 1960s and 1970s. Superhero supporting casts are now diverse enough that heroes don’t need sidekicks for conversation; both adult and teen superheroes have peers their own age, usually as part of crossovers or superhero teams; and teenage superheroes are now expected to act as the stars of their own adventures, with their own identities.
The teen superheroes that were created as sidekicks during the Golden and Silver Ages are still around as characters. However, like Dick Grayson, they nowadays are mainly shown either as solo adventurers who sometimes work with their mentors, or are on their own teams (see “Young Justice,” “DC Super Hero Girls,” and “Teen Titans”).
That said, while younger fans might associate Robin with the Teen Titans, a good portion of the general public probably still mainly views the Boy Wonder as the second half of the Dynamic Duo. The blog Women Write About Comics had an interesting post discussing the nature of Robin and superhero sidekicks (specifically why Robin doesn’t have his own movie).
Photo by Erika Wittlieb (Pixabay)